Virginia’s Redistricting Commission was, sparing no words for hurt feelings, a complete and total failure. This is particularly sad since it took a lot of work and an amendment to Virginia’s Constitution to establish it.
The passage of the amendment in a 2020 statewide vote seemed to offer a new chapter in the way Virginia drew its district lines and the amendment passed by a landslide.
To many, the commission’s structure seemed to offer the best kind of political compromise. It was a bipartisan commission and that had a refreshing sound to it. The commission’s membership included an even number of Democratic and Republican members from the House of Delegates and state Senate, along with Democratic and Republican citizen members. The citizen members were chosen by a panel of retired judges and were equally split along party lines.
The commission formed quickly, then delays on the part of the federal government in providing the needed census data slowed it down a bit. But speed, at least at first, didn’t seem to be a problem. That is, until partisanship, the classic “us against them” mentality, came boiling to the surface.
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Rapidly enough, dissension and dysfunction took its toll, prodded along, no doubt, by some by the professional politicians on the commission. The intent was that the body would produce one set of district lines for the House of Delegates, State Senate, and U.S. House of Representatives.
Instead, within a few meetings, each side, Democratic and Republican, was requesting separate counsel. The hope had been that there would be only one set legal advisers helping the commission with its work, so this was a bad sign.
This was followed by separate maps supported by each side. Shortly after that, members started to realize the enterprise was coming apart and quickly enough brought the commission’s work to a close.
The 2020 amendment proscribed that if there was an impasse, the Virginia Supreme Court would take on the job of drawing the district maps. Accordingly, the court acted quickly, appointing special masters—experts in the field—who have since developed an initial set of district maps. Public hearings and comment periods were held last week.
Make no mistake, there is a lot at stake in how district boundaries are drawn. Individual members want to keep their seats, and others want to draw maps favorable for their future advancement. As for the parties, deep down they both long for the days of wanton and undemocratic political gerrymandering. With that in mind, maybe a bipartisan commission, in our hopelessly partisan environment, was bound to fail.
While the state Supreme Court adjudicates electoral issues, including disputed district lines and vote counts, the court likes to stay away from this role. The justices don’t like partisan politics. In their minds, it’s the legislature’s responsibility to draw the district lines and not one for the state’s judiciary branch.
However, somewhere between now and when the next commission is formed—and we have years to work on this—we need to restructure the commission so that it has some hope of success.
Colorado’s model isn’t a bad one to consider. Colorado is as beset by partisanship as Virginia. However, its process worked.
First, Colorado has two commissions: one for state legislative offices and one for Congressional districts. And most of all, each has a strong independent contingent in their membership. Each commission has 12 members, with four Republicans, four Democrats and four “unaligned” members.
Under the Colorado system, no map can pass with fewer than eight votes, and no map can be approved without two of the unaligned members voting for it. It didn’t take partisanship out of the equation, but it blunted some of its impact.
Our legislature deserves credit for trying to develop a mechanism to end the grievous gerrymandering that defined Virginia’s electoral redistricting for decades. But sadly, because of the gridlocking powers of modern partisan politics, it failed, leaving the State Supreme Court to clean up the mess.
We can and should do better the next time around.